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Freshman numbers up at many Illinois universities

Published: Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013 9:59 p.m. CDT

CHAMPAIGN – Many of Illinois' public universities are bucking a national trend of generally declining enrollment, welcoming larger freshmen classes to their campuses this fall.

Experts warn not to read too much into the increases, but the schools say higher numbers show there's something at work – from the University of Illinois' strong science and math programs to marketing and financial aid efforts at smaller universities to draw more students, particularly from the Chicago area.

"We've been working hard on an overall enrollment management strategy and those efforts are beginning to pay off," Eastern Illinois University provost Blair Lord said. The Charleston school's overall enrollment was down 5.7 percent but freshman enrollment went up for the first time in four years, rising 2.5 percent to 1,254.

Other universities with increases included the University of Illinois' flagship campus in Urbana-Champaign, the University of Illinois Springfield, Northern Illinois University and Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, which drew its largest freshman class in two decades after offering new scholarships and financial aid.

Even declining freshman numbers at some other schools were historically high – the 1,966 students who started this fall at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, despite being 5 percent less than last year, are part of the fourth-largest incoming class in school history.

Around the country, higher education enrollments are falling. The National Student Clearinghouse reported in May that enrollment was down by 2.3 percent for the spring semester, the third straight semester of declines. Both four-year public and community college enrollments are part of that trend, though private schools continue to grow.

Terry Hartle, vice president at the American Council on Education, says that while schools never like to see enrollments drop, the current trend shouldn't set off alarms.

"Enrollment boomed during the economic downturn and, as the economy recovered, some individuals have gone into the workforce and stayed there," he said.

So why is Illinois bucking the trend? Hartle can't be sure yet, but said the state's continuing economic trouble – Illinois has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country at 9.2 percent – combined with tuition costs might be driving some of the increase. Some people who would otherwise go to private schools might instead choose to enroll at public universities, he said.

"Some people might look at that and think they can't afford it," Hartle said.

Illinois' universities also face the challenge of a shrinking number of high school graduates to choose from, which especially affects EIU and Illinois State University in Normal, whose student bodies are heavy with in-state students.

Plus, there's competition from out of state. Illinois students are heavily recruited by schools elsewhere.

"Universities throughout the country are pretty aggressive about attracting them out," said Troy Johnson, associate vice president of enrollment management at ISU. It enrolled a smaller number of freshmen this fall than in 2012.

The University of Illinois-Springfield's 19.8 percent increase in freshman enrollment – to 339 students – is probably a direct result of the school's Chicago-area marketing push and increases in scholarship money, according to Tim Barnett, the school's vice chancellor of student affairs.

Direct mail, email, billboards and radio spots are all being used to persuade students who might otherwise look outside of Illinois to come to the state capital, he said.

"We see a lot of those students moving out to other schools – [the University of] Iowa, or the University of Wisconsin or one of the schools on the East Coast," Barnett said.

Hartle cautions that one year of widespread increases may wind up not meaning much. But he said competition for a shrinking number of students is a source of ongoing concern.

"I think a key consideration for all of the Midwestern states are the declining numbers of high school graduates," he said. "That's a longer-term demographic decline."

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Follow David Mercer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/davidmercerap

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